As the definition of love expands more and more, relationships have become more fluid. Open relationships, polyamory and so on are no longer unheard of. However, even the most fluid of relationships need basic ground rules to avoid causing unnecessary pain and misunderstanding. So, if you’ve begun the journey of an open relationship and are still wondering what are the open relationship rules that need to be followed, we’ve got your back.
We spoke to psychotherapist Sampreeti Das (Masters in Clinical Psychology and PhD researcher), who specializes in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, and Holistic and Transformational Psychotherapy, for more insights on how do open relationships work, open relationship boundaries, and the most common open relationship rules and how to set yours.
What Do Open Relationships Mean?
Open relationships challenge the notion that humans are naturally monogamous. To open up a relationship is to acknowledge that a single partner may not be able to fulfill all your needs — emotional, psychological, logistical and sexual.
Open relationships may often be confused with polyamory. Since both are fluid connections, there are certain overlaps and they’re both tough to define in conclusive terms. In most cases, open relationships are seen as having a single romantic connection, but multiple sexual partners. A polyamorous relationship, on the other hand, is being emotionally and mentally engaged with multiple people at the same time.
Open relationships are a part of non-monogamy, an umbrella term that comprises any relationship that does not carry a tag of exclusivity. Since non-exclusive relationships are still uncommon, it’s often up to the parties concerned to set boundaries and make the rules.
“Relationship rules are important to have clarity about what to expect. They govern the entire dynamic. In fact, they help us avoid any ambiguity related to exercising biases about different relationships that we all have due to our socio-cultural backgrounds. For instance, when parents tell children, “Do not be late!”, it is important to also deliver what is the definition of this late,” Sampreeti says.
Open relationships often leave room for jealousy and botched communication that could make things difficult and uncomfortable. This is why open relationship rules are vital, ideally before embarking on the relationship itself. We rounded up the most common open relationship rules and how to set yours.
What Are The Open Relationship Rules To Make It Successful?
When we talk of rules for an open relationship, the aim is that you stay protective of yourself and your partner(s). Setting ground rules for an open relationship are healthy and beneficial for all the partners in the relationship.
“It is not required to present these rules as a manual right at the beginning. But, taking time (before any expressed commitment) to build up the strength of a relationship provides ample opportunities to give yourself and your partners an idea of the rule book. Open relationships will have more complex dynamics anyway. So, rulebooks keep things in check by facilitating boundary regulation in a healthy way,” Sampreeti says.
When it comes to open relationships, every couple and each partner will have a different understanding and expectation of the open relationship rules. What works for one couple may not necessarily work for another, and so the defined ‘permissions’ can be blurry at times. Also, setting some rules are primarily aimed at keeping you safe, sexually and emotionally, and to keep jealousy out of the equation.
Rule 1: Be open about everything
Honesty is the best policy when you are going for an open relationship. If you have one partner whom you consider your emotional significant other, don’t hide that fact that you have other partners. Similarly, if you have multiple sexual partners, it would be wise to ensure they are aware of one another.
Among other things, you’ll need to discuss timelines, levels of physical and emotional intimacy, etc. You needn’t share too many uncomfortable details, but one of the most basic open relationship rules is to keep things, well, open, and honest.
Sampreeti also recommends being completely honest with yourself. “There are many layers of interaction that we form in society. It is important that we become self-aware about our roles in each of them and how far we can give ourselves to those. Once that is figured out, we can let others know about our nature of involvement in multiple relationships,” she says.
Hiding things might create jealousy between your partner and you, and cause a major imbalance in the entire notion of open relationships giving way to unnecessary power struggles. A good start to this conversation might be to ask all your partners their interpretation of an open relationship and what it means to them.
Rule 2: Do not undermine the feelings of your other partners
Just because you have a primary partner does not mean you undermine the feelings of other partners. The very concept of an open relationship is also to ‘open’ ourselves up to the idea that a sexual partner doesn’t have to be ‘less’ than a romantic or emotional partner. Here too, honesty will come in handy.
Let them know what you are looking for – is it just that you want to hookup or is it a relationship. You may need to be sensitive to a partner who feels threatened or jealous of someone else that you may be seeing. You may also need to set timings that you will be seeing for partners for each week or month, lest jealousy and insecurity takes over your relationship.
“A great many would agree that relationships need proper communication. But few can define proper communication here. There can be guidelines about proper communication, but what is proper in a particular relationship has to be self-invented, or with the help of experts — like counselors from the Bonobology panel,” says Sampreeti.
“In an open relationship, invest to invent that pattern of communication that works for your relationship. Be open about your feelings, whether it’s inadequacy, jealousy or joy. This will encourage your partners to open up about their feelings as well,” she adds.
Rule 3: Set boundaries and limitations
This is important both for the partner in the primary relationship and the other partners you have. Set sexual boundaries. Set emotional boundaries. Be specific. Do you have oral sex? Do you do roleplay? Is BDSM something you’re going to be into? Is it okay to perform and indulge in sexual acts that you do not do with your primary partner?
Talking about these things in advance will prevent jealousy, guilt, hurt and disappointment. Also, be sure to talk about things that are off limits. Discuss consent in detail with all your partners. If it’s important in monogamy, it’s may be even more important in non-monogamous bonds.
“I’ve been in an open relationship for three years now. And the boundaries tend to expand and shrink depending on where we are in our lives. If one partner wants out and another takes their place, I make sure we have the open relationship boundaries discussion all over again,” says Tanya.
Emotional boundaries are just as important as physical ones. It is crucial to discuss what emotional and social interactions are okay. Is it okay for your partner to go on a date with someone they met on a dating app? Is it okay if they meet in a social context? Talking about these things will prevent your relationship from falling into the pit of jealousy.
Rule 4: Use protection
How do open relationships work? By making safe sex a priority. Safe sex is important no matter what your relationship status. And since you’re going to be with multiple partners, put this at the top of your list.
You may want to ask new partners to get themselves tested before getting physical with them. Having multiple partners can be an open invitation for STIs and STDs if you’re not smart about it. Get yourself tested frequently as well. It’s just good health planning. Popping in an emergency contraceptive pill is not advisable and you should avoid it as much as possible.
Talk to each other over using protection, be it in the form of condoms or dental dams if you have oral sex. Always use protection lest you transfer any disease you contract to your primary or other partners.
Rule 5: Be careful who you hook up with
Is it cool to hook-up with one of your partner’s classmates from high school? Or the boss from the company where your partner worked before? Be careful with this — open relationships do not mean being open to everyone.
Your partner might want to get intimate with people they already know while you might be uncomfortable with the idea that you might run into those people and create an awkward social situation.
Getting personal with a Facebook friend is okay? Are Tinder dates not cool? Whatever it is, discussing with your partner might save the ugly arguments later.
“Self-awareness is important in open relationships’, Sampreeti says. “If you’re aware of who you are and intentional about the decisions you make regarding your partners, you’ll be able to navigate things better.”
Rule 6: Don’t underplay jealousy
Ah, the green monster that creeps up on us even in the most stable of relationships. It’s hard enough in a single-partner relationship, but when there are multiple bodies (and hearts) involved, that creeping, unhealthy jealousy is bound to come into the picture. And no, one of the rules for an open relationship can’t be, “You can’t be jealous.”
Like all matters pertaining to relationships, you’re not going to be able to organize your open relationship into a neat Excel sheet, no matter how many open relationship rules you make and discuss. You’re dealing with people and feelings, and it’s going to get messy.
The open relationship rule here needs to be to not trivialize jealousy. One of the partners can get jealous over other people their partner is seeing. Don’t ride it out by keeping the emotions in and feelings bottled up. Don’t ignore it either. Don’t say stuff like, “Baby, you are just jealous.”
Communication is important, open communication is very important — it is an open relationship after all. Don’t shame them for feeling jealous, don’t shame yourself for it either.
Rule 7: Remind your partner that you love them
Assuming you have one primary partner, it’s always a great idea to remind them that you adore them. Gentle reminders everyday about how much you love them will make the open relationship thrive. There might be doubts in your partner’s mind about losing you to someone else, so it is important to tell them you want them fully in your life – sex or no sex, monogamous or non-monogamous.
Our open relationship advice will be to go out on regular dates with your primary partner, bring them gifts, go on holidays to make them feel wanted and cared for. This is one of the most important open relationship rules.
“My primary partner is fairly relaxed about our open relationship, but let’s face it, we’re terribly conditioned to feel undermined in a relationship if we’re not the one and only,” says Brian. “So, once every few months, we go on a little love-moon (we’re not married so we don’t say honeymoon), and just focus on each other.”
Rule 8: Back out if it doesn’t work
Actually, this is the most important and difficult rule of any relationship, open or not. No matter how long you have been dating or been together, getting into an open relationship is a different ballgame altogether.
It does not necessarily suit everyone, it is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Of course, if there are too many issues cropping up in your open relationship, you might want to back out of it. Revisit it when you both have the same mindset.
Remember, you’re not getting into an open relationship because it’s ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’. Backing out of it doesn’t make you uptight or boring. Sampreeti advises being very clear about your commitment levels and what you want in a relationship before making any decisions about open relationships.
Related Reading: Different Types Of Relationships: Find Out Yours
What Are One-Sided Open Relationships?
One-sided open relationships are about one of the partners experimenting with other people and the other not doing so. But one-sided open relationships also need honesty and a lot of communication, because jealousy and possessiveness are bound to creep in.
One-sided open relationship rules demand that the partner who continues in a monogamous relationship should be informed in detail about the other partner’s multiple relationships. If they have reservations and requests, that should be respected.
One-sided open marriages and open relationships exist mostly when one partner has some medical issues and cannot enjoy sex, is asexual or has lost interest in sex after a long marriage. Some partners might want to explore a same-sex relationship after a monogamous marriage and that’s when they want to transition to a one-sided open relationship.
The only issue is that one-sided open marriages could become exploitative when one partner is forced to give the consent because they are scared of their partner leaving them or want to keep the marriage intact for their kids. But like all open-relationships, one-sided open relationship rules say it is reversible. If the partners see it’s not working, they can go back to being monogamous.
Your question could be: what if my partner wants an open relationship? You have to understand how you feel about it first. Many people who have started the swinging lifestyle initially felt a sense of shock, but if you take the idea very slow, are sure of your partner’s reason, then you should think about consent without any coercion. Also you should ensure that your partner is willing to stop any time you feel uncomfortable about it.
Are open relationships healthy?
Open relationships are not the norm and some naysayers might cringe at the word itself, but open relationships are as healthy as monogamous relationships. It needs as much emotional, mental and physical work as a monogamous relationship.
So, are monogamous relationships healthy? There’s trust, passion, fighting, cheating, breakups in open relationships just like in monogamous ones.
A recent article published in The New York Times stated that partners in open relationships experience the same levels of satisfaction, psychological wellbeing and sexual satisfaction as those in monogamous relationships.
Sampreeti also points out that any relationship that fulfills psychological and sexual needs is healthy, no matter the relationship structure.
So, yes. Open relationships like any other relationships are healthy as long as the partners are on the same wavelength and feel similar levels of significant mental, emotional and sexual satisfaction.
Can open relationships work?
As long as dishonesty, jealousy and fear don’t ruin the relationship, open relationships can thrive. Before getting into an open relationship, you need to ask yourself if you want your relationship to be open because of sexual freedom or is it a way to retreat from your partner.
Regular check-ins with your partner, maintaining absolute honesty and variations of the rules you set before you started can make open relationships as beautiful as you want it to be.
Can an open relationship save a relationship?
A relationship goes downhill because of lack of communication, and physical and mental incompatibility, and the fissures are visible. If a couple thinks that they can save their relationship by opening it up, it’s bound to ruin their own relationship further rather than helping it.
An open relationship cannot thrive on shaky grounds. If there are already problems in the relationship, bringing in other people in it will, in all probability, make it worse.
A marriage or a relationship cannot be saved by transitioning into an open relationship. Instead the effort should be to bring back the couple’s communication, empathy and sensitivity, first. Once that is established, a couple can venture into an open relationship if they still want to.
One golden rule though: Honesty. Every relationship survives on honesty and trust, and so do open relationships. And even when it comes to rules, follow them honestly.
What do you think can be added in the open relationship rules to make it a smooth sailing? Tell us in the comments below.